Signup ButtonHave you ever wanted to look inside your head, to see what’s happening?


Brain waves

Because I have, ever since I first heard about the benefits of meditating, way back in 1974, and I started to read about brain research, I have been wanting to find a way to see inside my own brain to see if I am really meditating!

I read all the cool stuff about how people had refined and improved all sorts of aspects of their lives using alpha rhythms, brain-wave entrainment, meditation, mindfullness etc … but I never knew whether I was doing it correctly.

People said it was like learning to ride a bike: you practiced until you got it.  But there’s immediate feedback on a bike: you’re either wobbling down the road, or lying in a hedge with a broken wrist (that’s what happened the first time I tried riding a bike!)  But how do you know if you are meditating, and on the verge of enlightenment, or have merely fallen asleep?

Because now you can!

Conor and Joel

Conor and Joel

Two guys from New York (Joel Murphy and Conor Russomanno) are bringing out (low-cost, easy-to-use) equipment that not only allows us to peer inside our own (or other people’s!) brains, but also to fiddle with the equipment to get it to do stuff the inventors never even considered.

It’s an Open-Source Brain-Computer Interface, that allows us to see, either in real-time, or recorded for later, exactly what’s going on with our brain waves and other mental activity, through a DIY EEG (Electroencephalography — seeing brain waves) and EMG (Electromyography — seeing the electrical activity in certain muscles).

The Wikipedia article on EEGs does point out that you probably get better results from a functional MRI scan, but I’m not holding out for home-based, open-source, DIY magnetic resonance imagers any time soon, so I remain excited by an affordable DIY EEG.

Why would I want to?

HeadsetWell, I don’t know why you would want to, but here’s what other people are doing.  Using it as bio-feedback to improve all sorts of aspects of their health and their lives.  For instance, people are learning to reduce their blood pressure, synchronise their brains with the rest of their bodies through controlling Heart Rate Variability (an interest of mine: I spent two weeks in hospital with atrial fibrillation, and want to learn to control it without drugs–the Open BCI equipment can also be used to monitor your heart rate, as well as brain waves).  People who are totally paralyzed are using BCI to communicate.  Others are learning to control depression and deal with behavioral problems.  I am intending to conduct research to see if I can train my brain to react to food the way a lean person’s brain does.

Is it only about terribly responsible health stuff?

No.  Here’s someone controlling an AR Drone with his mind (I have an AR Drone–I have GOT to try this!):

You could open the curtains, turn on the TV, change the channel, send a Tweet (that’s got to be a little bit complicated!) all using your mind.  Somewhere I saw a clip of someone controlling an R2D2 toy robot using BCI.  I suppose it’s a bit trite to say the only limit is your imagination!

Is it all terribly technical?

Signup ButtonNo.  Yes. Well, it depends how technical you want to be.  The whole point of Open BCI is that it is:

  1. Affordable
  2. Accessible by ordinary mortals
  3. Has a hugely varied community who can all help one another

So, if you want to do something that’s beyond your technical ability, there’s bound to be someone else in the community who would be interested in working with you.  There are some very clever people involved, but they aren’t scary at all!

Are there many other people involved?

Well, OpenBCI have 519 people following their Twitter feed, 947 people backed them on Kickstarter, their Facebook page has 1435 likes.  And they are only just getting going!

And we (FabLabsUK) are one of five research partners around the world:

Based in Rennes and Paris, France,
Mensia Technologies SA is a technology
start-up focused on the wellness
and healthcare applications of
real-time, quantitative neurophysiology.
Melon works on making the invisible activity of the mind visible to help people
understand themselves better.  The Melon team is working on developing their first product, a headband that measures focus and an app that tracks users’ tasks and environment.Check out their Kickstarter project.
de Sa lab at UCSD  Our research goal is to better understand the neural basis of human perception and learning.
We are interested in how we learn, both from a neural and computational point of view.
deSa Lab
 FamiLab FamiLAB in Orlando is Central Florida’s provider of space, tools, and community for creative technical learning and projects.FamiLAB’s mission is to be a community that fosters learning and creativity through hands-on projects, collaboration, and the sharing of skills & tools to improve ourselves and enrich the world around us.

Dr. Liu Xu-Ying’s group is affiliated with the Key Laboratory of Computer Network and Information Integration, MOE, and the School of Computer Science and Engineering.

Their research interests mainly include machine learning and data mining.

 FabLabsUK FabLabsUK exists to promote the Fab Lab movement in the UK.  The FabLabs Research partner to Open BCI is James Hardiman.  I am interested in integrating Open BCI with other sensors, so that we can get integrated bio-feedback that allows us to learn to control Heart Rate Variability (HRV), blood  pressure, sleep cycles, depression, OCD, etc.  I am particularly interested in anything that makes it easy for people to overcome obesity.

OK, Got it.  I’m intrigued! What next (and is it going to cost me an arm and a leg?)

Next is to tell me that you’re interested, what sort of things you’re interested in (bio-hacking, controlling drones, getting slim, switching on the TV without having to remember where you put the remote).

Later this year (no date yet, but I’m thinking either early summer or early autumn) there will be a two-day workshop/hackathon, in the UK, led by the inventors, Joel and Conor.

At that workshop you will get your own Open BCI kit, and you will learn how to use it.  We will all be working on our own projects, and will share what we do.

And no, it won’t cost you a fortune.  Currently we are looking at £350 for the equipment AND the two-day workshop.  (Call it $570 if you want to pay in US dollars, or €570.)

Hmm.  Cool.  So, what will I get out of the Hackshop?

Hack 3Well, one of the reasons I am scheduling the hackshop later rather than earlier, is to give us in the UK more time to decide what we want in the workshop, and to allow more time for the workshop contents to mature.  That being said, the workshop has already run several times.  They ran a one-day “Hack-a-Brain” event in New York back in February 2013, and these were the goals of the day:

  • Bring together people from a wide range of disciplines who are interested in brain-computer interfacing
  • Conceptualize, design, prototype, and build tools/applications that explore future implications of interfacing the brain
  • Document and publish all work with the intention of driving forward the DIY brain-interfacing community
  • Initiate an ongoing discussion around the future of brain interfaces, spawning future similar events

You can read more about the event on the Brain Interface Lab blog, and you can read how it went here.

That’s all very well, but I wouldn’t know an Arduino from a hole-in-the-ground!

No problem.  The chief requirements are:

  • You have a brain
  • You are curious to know what goes on inside it
  • You are interested in novel ways of using your brain
  • Would like to meet similarly-motivated people

We may well run “Geekdom 101” classes beforehand, for people who decide they want to know more, but those classes won’t be mandatory.

What kit do I get when I come on the Hackathon?

Open BCI V3You get the OpenBCI Board & Electrode Starter Kit,

  • An 8-channel, OpenBCI EEG signal capture system which is bluetooth-enabled, Arduino-compatible, and have an on-board SD card holder,
  • An electrode starter kit which includes 10 passive electrodes and conductive paste.

You will have everything you need to get up and running right out of the box!   I am working on seeing what extra goodies I might squeeze out of Joel and Conor before the day of the hackathon (may depend on numbers!)

Can I order extra kit, like the daisy-chain unit, or extra electrodes?

Yes (well, I hope so!), but we don’t have a system for that yet.

Can I come on the workshop for a reduced price if I don’t want to keep the kit?

Interesting question!  Hadn’t thought of that one before.  Probably depends on the size of the venue.  Let us know if that’s what you want, and we’ll get back to you.  Same applies if you want to bring a friend or relation and have two of you work with one piece of equipment (in fact, as I think about it, that’s probably logistically easier).

Can I get feedback from this kit on my Smartphone?

Very likely.  In fact there are folk in a local cafe here in Orlando wearing Google Glass, right now, and talking about hacking Open BCI to get a display on that!  Whether you will be able to hack an iOS app to give sophisticated analysis from 27 different sensors in two days … depends how good you are at iOS development!

What do I need to bring with me?

Hmm, “need”!  We will work out mandatory requirements closer to the day.  I will aim to keep stuff that you need to bring with you as low as possible.  What it would be cool if you had with you is probably:

  • Any Arduinos, Arduino clones, ChipKits, Raspberry Pi’s that you are accustomed to using,
  • Whatever PC, Mac or Linux machine you use to support the micro-controllers you use.
  • Any technology that may influence your brainwaves that you would like to see.  For instance, I want to see what happens when I use Pzizz (, or my emWave2 machine.
  • Anything that you want to hack into the system.  For instance, I would like to hack a digital blood pressure monitor into the system (you can buy them for just a few pounds) and a blood-oxygen meter (SPo2) … again, just a few pounds (well, 20) from Amazon.

Will I have to wear a silly rubber bathing cap?

Headsetstory_shot2Probably.  The guys are working on developing a 3D-printed “spider claw”.

However, that isn’t part of the kit that we have ordered for the hackathon.  We (FabLabsUK) do have a number of 3D printers (and will probably have more by then), so we may be able to take orders for the spider-claw head gear, custom printed for your head size.  But that will cost extra, and no, I don’t know how much at present!

Well, you convinced me!  What do I do now?

Signup ButtonClick the button, and sign up.  It commits you to nothing, but it puts you on the “first-come-first-served” list, and makes sure that we keep you informed.

Do I need to pay now?

No, not yet.  Too early days!  We will let you know when.

Do you have any other information?

Oh!  You could regret asking that!

Here’s a video from de Sa Lab:

Check out the OpenBCI blog by clicking the picture below.

You can see the people involved in the project on this page.

I still have loads of questions!

Signup ButtonSigh!  There’s always one!  Well, I suggest that you read the Kickstarter page (there is LOADS of info there), and look at the OpenBCI website–and sign up for the hackathon, where Joel and Conor will be able to answer your every question.

Oh, and … there’s an Open Source BCI FAQ page, right here!

4 Responses to Hacking Our Brains

  • brian.degger says:

    Keep me in loop re brain hack 😉

  • Pascale Scheurer says:

    Hello I’d love to join the hackathon, great idea.

    I use a Neurosky Mindwave to track my brain activity learning to play violin and meditating. My awesome Emotiv Insight is coming soon via Kickstarter. I’d love to bring those to compare and share, and learn to use the OpenBCI as I’m really into open hardware / open sensors.

    I’m interested in how we can use brainwave feedback loops to improve mental wellbeing and learning. And to control robots, mini-UFOs, build new toys & games etc.



    • James says:

      Pascale, could you sign up on the Hackathon sign-up form (if you haven’t already done it) … that way I won’t lose track of you (I am currently moving from the USA back to the UK, and my head is full of packing crates!)

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